You are here

William Mitchell Ramsay

Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art, Oxford; Regius Professor of Humanity, Aberdeen
1851 to 1939

Classical scholar and archaeologist, as well as the foremost authority of his day on the topography, antiquities and history of Asia Minor in ancient times, William Mitchell Ramsay was born in Glasgow on 15 March 1851, the youngest son of Thomas Ramsay and Jane Mitchell, both of Alloa. Ramsay’s father died in 1857, and the family returned to its native shire to settle in a rural home near Alloa.

From the Gymnasium, Old Aberdeen, Ramsay went on to the University of Aberdeen and then won a scholarship at St. John's College, Oxford. There he obtained a first class in classical moderations (1874) and in literae humaniores (1876). In his second year at Oxford (1874), Ramsay benefited from the generosity of his maternal uncle and was able to spend the long vacation at Goettingen, studying Sanskrit under a great scholar, Theodor Benfey. This was a critical period of his life: then for the first time, in his own words, he ‘gained some insight into modern methods of literary investigation’, and his ‘thoughts ever since turned towards the border lands between European and Asiatic civilization’. A further stimulus was received from Henry Jardine Bidder, of St. John's, a man of incisive mind and speech, who first opened his eyes to the true spirit of Hellenism and so helped to fit him for the work which he had in view.

Like Gifford lecturer Otto Pfleiderer, Ramsay was influenced by F.C. Bauer, the founder of the Tübingen school of New Testament scholarship. Bauer introduced a Hegelian dialectic reading of New Testament theology, according to which early (specifically second-century) Christianity consisted of an ongoing synthesis between Gentile (Pauline) Christianity and Jewish (Petrine) Christianity. As a result, Bauer did not consider the New Testament to be primarily a source of historical truth, but rather a catalogue of attempted theological compromises between and syntheses of two fundamentally disparate parties, Pauline and Petrine.

Ramsay departed from the criticism of the Tübingen school in the early 1880s, however, when he traveled to Greece and Anatolia to study the supposed historical and archaeological inaccuracy of the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles, but instead became convinced of their historical veracity. Far from bolstering the widespread belief that the New Testament was defunct as a reliable record of actual historical events, Ramsay came to trust it (especially the Lucan narratives and Pauline epistles) as a reliable and accurate accounts. His interests grew to encompass the wider geography and cultural and religious history of Greece and Turkey, where in 1883 he discovered the oldest known musical composition, the Seikilos epitaph.

In 1882, Ramsay became a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. From 1885-1886 he was a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford and was Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art. In 1886 he became Regius Professor of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen, where he remained until his retirement in 1911. Having become a widely recognized expert on the geography and history of Asia Minor, on Paul’s missionary journeys to that region, and on Christianity in the Roman era, he received several honorary degrees and awards throughout his career and was knighted in 1906. He died in 1939 at the age of eighty-eight.

His published works include: The Historical Geography of Asia Minor (1890); The Church of the Roman Empire Before AD 170 (1892); The Church in the Roman Empire (1893); The Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia, 2 vols., (1895 and 1897, respectively); Impressions of Turkey (1897); St Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (1895; German translation, 1898); Was Christ born at Bethlehem? (1898); Historical Commentary on Galatians (1899); The Education of Christ (1902); The Letters of the Seven Churches of Asia (1904); Pauline and other Studies in Early Christian History (1906); Studies in the History and Art of the Eastern Provinces of the Roman Empire (1906); The Cities of St Paul (1907); Lucan and Pauline Studies (1908); The Thousand and One Churches (with Gertrude L. Bell, 1909). Pictures of the Apostolic Church: Studies in the Book of Acts (1910); The First Christian Century: Notes on Dr. Moffatt's Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (1911); The Bearing of Recent Discovery (1915).

  • Timothy Austen